Connecting for Innovation

Recently, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced that, from June, working at home will not be permitted. The official memo states: “communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. … Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.”

Predictably, the Yahoo news led to a storm of comment, mostly negative. The gist of these comments is that individuals can be more productive and efficient if they can work undisturbed at home. It saves commuting time (and the environment, by taking cars off the road) and modern communications technology can more than compensate for decreased face-to-face contact.

Lessons from the Past
From the 1920’s until the late l970’s, Bell Laboratories, a subsidiary of AT&T, was arguably the most innovative centre for new ideas in the world. Transistors, lasers, digital communication, solar power cells, mobile telephony and many other things we take for granted today originated in Bell Labs. How did that organisation work?

Jon Gertner has written an enlightening window into that world: The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation. Central for Bell Labs was the notion that “the group – especially the interdisciplinary group – was better than the lone scientist or small team.” A leading scientist of that day wrote: “We would meet together to discuss important steps almost on the spur of the moment … we would discuss things freely. I think many of us had ideas in these discussion groups, one person’s remarks suggesting an idea to another.”

“Social and professional exchanges moved back and forth, in all directions. … Formal talks and informal chats were always encouraged, both as a matter of policy and by the inventive design of the building.” A building redesign is also what Mayer has pushed through for Yahoo. Within Bell Labs the position was, “People had to be near one another. Phone calls alone wouldn’t do.” According to a former senior Bell Labs executive, an institution seeking greatness in research and development needs a place where a “critical mass” of people can exchange all kinds of information and consult with one another. Creative environments that foster a rich exchange of ideas are a key to success.

The present
In many organisations, working from home is increasingly a fact, and for some people a privilege. That works well where the alternative is that individuals waste time on lengthy commutes, only to spend their days closeted in offices or cubicles doing independent work. Virtual teams are also a fact of life: individuals spread across countries and continents have to work on the same project and simply cannot meet face to face often, if at all.

However, when innovation is crucial, it is doubtful whether this works. Then people need to interact, to connect, to learn to trust each other, and to influence each other’s thinking. For this purpose, email, teleconferences and Skype are simply not as effective as face-to-face encounters and exchanges.

The Bell Labs environment led to the invention and development of much of what now make instant global communications possible. It is ironic that this has resulted in working environments that are much less conducive to innovation and creativity.